Virtual reality has come and gone over the years, and many spectators are going through the second or third hype phase for the technology. That's resulted in some skepticism, but VR looks more promising this time, with big companies like Facebook (owner of Oculus) putting tons of money behind it.
While there's been impressive developments in VR game and movie making, not much has been announced for the social side of things. Sure, being able to gun down enemies in a world that goes beyond the borders of a 2D display is great fun, but many people believe that the real legacy of VR will be in its social abilities.
That's certainly the future that IMVU president and founder Brett Durret sees for VR, and it's one he wants to see his social interaction tool exploit to the fullest. To that end, it recently introduced a simple technical demonstration of what VR will be like in IMVU and moving forward, there are big plans to develop it into something that not only allows social interactions in a virtual world, but also make it possible for other VR developers to use community created assets.
IMVU is a virtual chat room like Habbo Hotel, or Second Life, letting users chat to each other as an avatar, using gestures, interactions and their own typed words to communicate. It's been operating for over a decade, with millions of registered users in that time. Now, Durrett plans to take it to an entirely new dimension, and hopefully a new audience, with the introduction of virtual reality.
"We're been working on VR in one form or the other since the middle of 2014, exploring what VR is going to look like," he said. "The hard part is making it feel like an evolution of IMVU, rather than an entirely new product."
Creating the VR experience
While Durret agreed that virtual reality tends to work better with games when they are built for VR from the ground up, IMVU has always been an experience viewed from the third person, so bringing it into a world of first person perspectives was a strange one.
"We actually already developed a first person perspective in the past, but it didn't work out," Durrett said. IMVU isn't starting from scratch when it came to making it VR applicable. That doesn't mean it's easy, though.
"How do you make it feel right in VR? That's the hard part," he said. "For social to work it's very important that people don't get queasy or sick and the input had to be changed too. Typically we use a keyboard base for chatting, but that's not easy to do with VR. For those that don't have voice enabled, we actually have voice synthesis for avatars, so typed communication can be converted for those in VR."
IMVU added voice chat in the past, but most users didn't adopt it. However, with VR, Durrett sees it as a necessity to make the experience feel more natural. As comfortable as a keyboard and mouse can feel when using a desktop, doing the same in VR feels very disorientating.
Player controlled visuals
Avoiding that and aiding comfort in VR is very important, which means having a high frame rate to avoid nausea. When we asked whether Durret thought IMVU's rather simplistic graphics would aid VR in that respect, he laughed.
"The visuals of IMVU are really controlled by the players. Some like to go for a more cartoony look, whilst others prefer high-end visuals. Besides, thanks to our recent developments, we moved our whole system over to webGL. It's set to launch in July, so when it does, we can render everything in 3D in the back end and service it as 2D video out. Nobody has to download anything."
Durrett is talking about the vast library of community created assets, which players can buy and sell with real money. That means most of the content on screen isn't created by the IMVU developers, but by the community. Because of that, what the game eventually looks like in VR will depends on the players themselves.
Durrett did admit that there may be players who are keen to have more detailed clothes on their character and higher quality items in their digital environments in the future, since VR makes it possible to look at them much more closely. However, that's down to them. What IMVU is focused on, is figuring out how to make the experience interactive and comfortable.
Making interactions physical
With VR, the system could potentially need to accept lots of different inputs. Durrett said his developers tried a camera based solution for hand tracking, but it didn't allow enough freedom. While he named no names, it may have been Nimble VR, the camera hand tracking firm that Oculus purchased late in 2014.
"Hugging, shaking hands, and waving are going to be very important," he said, highlighting how even when not using virtual reality, IMVU has had some strong reactions from people.
"When we first started off with 3D social interactions, we found subtle motions very powerful. It's a limbic connection. We had people that would lean back from the screen if an avatar hugged them. 'I didn't say they could hug me,' some said."
Gesture-based animations could take the social experience to a new level of immersion. However as it stands, IMVU is not set up to receive those sorts of inputs, so they'll need development. While this might give IMVU's competitors a bit of an edge, Durrett doesn't think it will make much difference, as he believes his service is better prepared in other ways.
"Our experience is much more comfortable [than others] for VR. We have a system where you move from seat to seat by clicking, rather than walking. It's much less queasy."
"From the beginning we focused on the social aspects, rather than the world." This, he believes, will give IMVU the edge, and is the reason Durrett tells us he's not worried about Facebook potentially developing its own VR social solutions.
"IMVU is focused on people over place. We fundamentally focus on making human connections. The spaces people occupy, are just context for a conversation."
Especially since many people in the community have benefited financially from IMVU, as well as socially.
"When I tell people that we have content creators making over $100,000 a year, they don't really understand," Durrett said. "People make their living by creating digital pants and shoes. We now have over 20 million assets, thanks to the creativity of our users and all of them work in VR."
Outsourcing the future
But that's just the beginning.
"I think [virtual reality] can only add to what we're doing there. Our client is going to make the content more rich. Things like an amusement park would be more exciting and therefore more valuable."
"Our creators can now make interactive content too," he said, so there is more scope for what players can add to their worlds.
If that wasn't enough, IMVU has been working with Unity developers to bring that content to others. In the future, those building games with the Unity engine will be able to purchase and make use of all of IMVU's community created assets if they want to. And the content creators that made it will have an entirely new revenue stream through their fellow IMVU players.
Durrett and his team is determined to solve any and all issues that crop up, and create a unique space for people to continue meeting and chatting, whether they step into a virtual dimension or not. With players already spending an average of 45 minutes per IMVU session, and new players joining daily, the 11-year-old social game is well positioned to capitalize on virtual reality's ascent.